Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Buffy Rewatch: Buffy the Slayer Vampire

Season one comes to a close, as we discuss "Nightmares", "Out of Sight, Out of Mind", and "Prophecy Girl".

"I may be dead, but I'm still pretty."

The Slayer's job is to kill - it's right there in the job title. It's also the Slayer's job to die - Buffy didn't become a Slayer until the previous one died, and the next Slayer won't appear until Buffy dies.

Death, as the saying goes, is her gift.

"Angel" may have been the first great episode of the series, but it's in the last few episodes of season one where the show, I think, starts to develop into the great series it becomes. The idea of death hangs heavily over these episodes: in "Nightmares" we see Giles' nightmare of Buffy's death made real, and the prophecy in "Prophecy Girl" involves the Master killing the Slayer as he rises to power.

Over its seven seasons, the show will do a great job with the various relationships among the characters, but for me the key relationship in the series is the one between Buffy and Giles. (Just edging out Buffy and Willow.) And "Nightmares" provides the first real indication of how much Buffy already means to Giles: "I failed. It was my duty to protect you. I should have been more cautious, taken more time to train you. But you were so gifted. And the evil was so great." That is such a great line, and Head delivers it brilliantly.

And Buffy's two nightmares - the incredibly upsetting conversation with her often-absent dad Hank, and her becoming a vampire - perfectly represent her biggest fear as a girl and her biggest fear as a Slayer. (Especially as a Slayer who's falling in love with a vampire. But we'll get to that soon enough.) Gellar's close-up in the scene where Nightmare Hank tells Buffy that it was her fault that he and Joyce split up... well, I'm going to cut-and-paste A LOT if I just talk about how great Sarah Michelle Gellar is throughout the series. It's scenes like this one (and most of her work in "Prophecy Girl") that I think really informed her work in the re-shot scenes in the pilot.

Giles' and Buffy's nightmares provide the emotional heft here, but Willow's nightmare is also important. You'll remember that she ran off stage (hilariously) after forgetting her lines last week in the talent show in "The Puppet Show"; in her nightmare here, she's supposed to perform in an opera, but hasn't rehearsed and can't sing. It's a nice bit of continuity, and it's also appropriate for her character: as the smart girl, she'd likely have no greater fear than not being prepared for a performance, or a test. But I think it also relates to Willow's development throughout the series.

I know I didn't really want to talk about the series in a spoilery way, but it's impossible for me to talk about Willow's nightmare without talking about her coming out in season 4. I know that Joss Whedon and the writers hadn't planned on making Willow a lesbian at this point in the series, but I think it's absolutely consistent with how she's portrayed here. And this is definitely a case where I relate really strongly to Willow.

Before you come out, you're often worried about saying the wrong thing, or giving the wrong signal, or doing anything that might give yourself away. Willow's prep work / rehearsal is definitely about her readiness as the smart girl - but it's also a shield, a way of protecting herself from revealing something she's not ready to reveal.

I'd also argue that her crush on Xander makes sense in the context of her eventual coming out. She's known him since they were very, very young, Xander's safe, and she loves him - it's natural to confuse those feelings with a crush / love when you don't really know what those feelings actually feel like. My point is that, though Willow's coming out wasn't planned at this point, nothing that happens here is inconsistent with what comes later.

"Nightmares" is an early example of what I like to call a "state of the union" episode. It's a standalone episode, yes, but in some ways it's also like pressing the pause button: it's more interested in taking a look at where these characters are right now than it is in telling its story. On its own, the episode's story (a boy is beaten into a coma by his Little League coach) would make a solid episode, and "Nightmares" does it well. But where "Nightmares" gets really interesting - and powerful - is in what it says about Buffy, Willow, Xander, and particularly Giles.

"Out of Mind, Out of Sight" is another season one episodes that features a very X-FILES sort of ending. It's most notable for being the episode that starts to integrate Cordelia into the gang. And the timing is perfect - after 10 episodes of antagonistic air-headedness, I was completely bored with Cordy. By the end of season 1, they either had to kill her, or somehow get her to work with Buffy. And they chose wisely.

"Prophecy Girl" marks Joss Whedon's debut as a director. And to compare his work here with his work later in the series (for example, in standout, iconic episodes like "Hush" or "The Body" or "Once More, With Feeling"), his growth as a director in later seasons is remarkable. Here, the choreography in the climactic battle is basic, rudimentary. (Compare to the cinematic climactic battle in "The Gift".) He does show some nice sympathetic touches as a director, particularly in the scene where Xander finally gets the courage to ask Buffy out. Brendon and Gellar play the scene beautifully - and the way it's written, you can tell that Whedon (who also wrote the episode) was a Xander in high school.

Whedon's unsure direction aside, "Prophecy Girl" is a knockout. Gellar is phenomenal here. "Giles, I'm 16 years old. I don't wanna die" - that line, and Gellar's delivery of it, just kill me.

So that takes us to the end of season 1. Season 1 is actually better than I remember: there are some solid standalone episodes, and the show does a great job giving depth to all of the main characters. "Angel" and "Nightmares" and "Prophecy Girl" (the season's best episodes) also give the show an emotional power that will soon become its standard. I can't wait to get back into season two next week. Spike and Drusilla!

"Nightmares": A
"Out of Mind, Out of Sight": B-
"Prophecy Girl": A

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